Jehova's Witnesses


What Do They Believe



Name: Jehovah's Witnesses Founder: Charles Taze Russell

Date of Birth: February 16, 1852

Birth Place: Allegheny, Pennsylvania

Year Founded: The history of Jehovah's Witnesses begins in 1869, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, when Charles Taze Russell began a Bible study which led to this separate movement. The name "Jehovah's Witnesses" (based on Isaiah 43:10-12) was not adopted until 1931.

Brief History: Although Charles Taze Russell was born to Presbyterian parents, he joined a Congregational Church at the age of fifteen. Soon, however, he became troubled by certain doctrines such as predestination and eternal punishment. At the age of seventeen he was a skeptic and disbelieved the Bible (Hoekema, p.223-24).

"Brought up a Presbyterian, indoctrinated from the Catechism, and being naturally of an inquiring mind, I fell a ready prey to the logic of infidelity, as soon as I began to think for myself. But that which at first threatened to be the utter shipwreck of faith in God and the Bible was, under God's providence, over-ruled for good, and merely wrecked my confidence in human creed and systems of Bible misinterpretations." -Charles Taze Russell (Watchtower magazine, 1916)

His wavering faith was re-established in 1870 after dropping in on a Second Adventist Bible study conducted by Jonas Wendell. Soon after this meeting, Russell organized his own Bible study with a circle of friends who came to regard him as their pastor.

Although Russell believed that the Second Adventists were "called of God" and he never renounced them (Russell still maintained his association with the Adventists and credits some preachers with teaching him much), a miscalculation concerning the Second-Coming of Christ caused him to re-evaluate Adventist teachings (Hoekema p. 224, Penton, p. 15).

In response, Russell, together with his organized Bible study group, determined that Christ's return would be an invisible or spiritual one. He later wrote a booklet entitled "The Object and Manner of the Lord's Return" to describe his new ideas and views on the issue. When he read similar ideas in N.H. Barbour's The Herald of the Morning, Russell joined him in editing the periodical. Both agreed that the Adventists had been mistaken in awaiting Christ in the flesh. In 1877, Russell and Barbour wrote and published Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World (Hoekema, p.224-25; Penton, p.18-19).

"This book set forth their belief that Christ's second presence began invisibly in the fall of 1874 and thereby commenced a forty-year harvest period. Then, remarkably accurately, they set forth the year 1914 as the end of the Gentile times..." (found in Qualified to Be Ministers, published in 1955 by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society). Charles Taze Russell disassociated himself with Barbour, however, a couple of years later over disagreements of theology. He withdrew from the Herald of the Morning magazine and began publishing his own - Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence - in 1879 (Penton, p.23). This periodical proved influential as around thirty congregations were born in seven states after only one year. In 1881, Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was established as an unincorporated body. Three years later, it was organized as a corporation (Hoekema, p.225). Some consider the birth of the corporation to be the beginning of the Jehovah's Witness movement, which would set the date at December 13, 1884. The purpose of the society as a corporation was as follows: "the dissemination of Bible truths in various languages by means of the publication of tracts, pamphlets, papers and other religious documents, and by the use of all other lawful means..." (found in Article II of the charter) In 1886 Russell began writing what is now known as the Studies in the Scriptures, a sacred text (Hoekema, p. 225; Penton, p.27). Charles Taze Russell died in October of 1916, leaving Joseph Franklin Rutherford with a solid foundation for the group we now call the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was under Rutherford, in 1931, that the name "Jehovah's Witnesses" was adopted. Russell did not choose a successor, instead Rutherford was elected in spite of opposition (Beckford, p.23). His general acceptance from the group was rocky (many schisms arose), as Rutherford disassociated himself from some of Russell's original ideas and practices (Ibid, p.46). After Rutherford's death in 1942, the previous vice president, Nathan Homer Knorr, rose to the position of president. One of his major accomplishments includes the founding of the Watch Tower Bible School of Gilead in the state of New York. This school is dedicated to equipping missionaries through intense scriptural study and learning evangelistic techniques (Ibid, p.49). Presently, Frederick Franz, who was elected after Knorr's death in 1977, is president of the group. Franz has enjoyed a rather conflict-free tenure in office since his election (Kephart and Zellner, p.285). Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible (New World Translation) and the Scripture Studies.

...(N)ot only do we find that people cannot see the divine plan in studying the Bible by itself, but we see, also, that if anyone lays the Scripture Studies aside, even after he has used them, after he has became familiar with them, after he has read them for ten years - if he then lays them aside and ignores them and goes to the Bible alone, though he has understood his Bible for ten years, our experience shows that within two years he goes into darkness. On the other hand, if he had merely read the Scripture Studies with their references and had not read a page of the Bible as such, he would be in the light at the end of two years, because he would have the light of Scriptures. -Charles Taze Russell (The Watchtower, September 15, 1910)

Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.

Size of Group: The Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches 1997 marks Jehovah's Witnesses membership at 5.1 million across 232 countries.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society also keeps reliable records of their own membership numbers (Stark and Iannaccone, p. 138-9). Their 1997 statistics state that their peak membership count tallied in at 5,599,931. It is important to note that Jehovah's Witnesses count only active publishers in their statistics. Therefore, besides excluding those who are not fervently committed to the group, counting only publishers also usually excludes people under the age of 16. It is, therefore, safe to say that their own statistics are rather conservative (Ibid, p.140).

In addition to boasting a large number of committed members, Jehovah's Witnesses also have an impressive growth rate of currently over 5% per year (Ibid, p.133). Between 1990 and 1994, the total percentage increase in the United States was 64%. This figure pales in comparison to the rate Latin America boasts: 239% (Ibid, p.140).

Jehovah's Witnesses are successful all over the world. They can be found in 232 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. Interestingly, only 19% of all Jehovah's Witnesses live in the U.S. compared to 20% in Western Europe and 25% in Latin America. In fact, 18 countries exceed U.S. membership rates, including Canada, Mexico, Finland, and New Zealand, to name a few. (Ibid, p. 140).

This globalization leads to a very racially mixed group. To take the U.S. as an indicator, National Survey of Religions Identification surveys of 1990 showed the following results: Of Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States:

44% White, Non-Hispanic 40% African-American 12% Hispanic-American 4% Asian-American (Ibid, p. 150)

Organization, Practices, and Beliefs Organization

The headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses is located in Brooklyn, New York and is called Bethel, meaning "House of God" (Kephart and Zellner, p. 286). A governing body consisting of 18 men meet there weekly to discuss many sorts of issues. There are also 5 committees - the Service Committee, Writing Committee, Publishing Committee, Teaching Committee, and the Chairman's Committee - which aid the governing body in decision making. Below the committees are the district and circuit overseers who accompany Witnesses to home meetings and visit congregations twice a year (Kephart and Zellner, p.286). Congregations meet five times a week in what they call Kingdom Halls. Elders, or overseers, lead the congregations voluntarily. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses are considered to be either Publishers or Pioneers (see Glossary below).

Across the globe, 100 branch offices participate in printing and mailing literature for the Jehovah's Witnesses. This includes Bibles, many different pamphlets, and two magazines which are published semi-monthly entitled Watchtower and Awake! (Kephart and Zellner, p.287).

Aside from the money earned from selling publications, the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society finances itself through self-imposed tithes. Charles Russell explained it in 1914:

"We have no church organization in the ordinary sense of the word, no bondage of any kind, no obligation to pay, either to the parent society or anybody else, either ten percent or any other sum...No solicitations for money in any way are authorized by the society...Every amount therefore, that has come into our hands, and been used, has been a voluntary donation from a willing heart..." (from Kephart and Zellner, p.290). Practices

The principal self-defining characteristics of Jehovah's Witnesses, according to Beckford, are: learning the official doctrines, showing willingness to proselytize actively, participating in all congregational meetings, and being baptized into the Watch Tower faith (Beckford, p.70).

The 5 meetings they should attend each week are as follows:

Public Talk: usually each Sunday, when an Elder (or rarely a Ministerial Servant) will deliver a talk about a specific topic. Watchtower Study: a lesson based on a study article in the current Watchtower; usually follows the public talk.

Theocratic Ministry School: generally takes place during the evening on a weekday. Speakers practice giving talks and witnessing.

Service Meeting: usually after the Theocratic Ministry School. It includes training for various ministry activities. Sometimes, elders will address specific issues and concerns of the congregation.

Book Study: held sometime during the week where a portion of a Watchtower publication is studied in depth.

above information from the Religious Tolerance Page

Other practices particular to Jehovah's Witnesses are the refusal to: salute a nation's flag, serve in a nation's military, vote, receive a blood transfusion, and the prohibition of smoking (Stark and Iannaccone).


Although Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs come from the Protestant and Adventist tradition, they do hold many beliefs that set themselves apart. The following are some key beliefs that make them different:

Jehovah God: Their God is the God of the Old Testament - all-powerful, all-knowing, and everlasting. They refer to Him as Jehovah - a true, personal, and exclusive name that all should use. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity. As mentioned above, God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator. The relationship between him and Jesus is like that of father and son: Jesus is the first creation of God. He is fully human. The Holy Spirit is an active force which intervenes for God on earth. All the above mentioned are separate entities.

Satan, the Devil: Satan is seen as an enemy of God. He is misleading and afflicts pain and sorrow. Through spiritism, nationalism, and temptation, Satan leads people astray. The way to resist the devil is by learning about Jehovah.

Man: Jehovah's Witnesses accept the Genesis account of the fall of man. Man is blemished with sin because of the disobedience Adam and Eve showed towards God. Every man is born with sin (save for Jesus, who was born to a virgin). They also believe that man's soul is mortal - i.e. that when a person dies, his spirit (or soul) dies as well. In addition, some will experience eternal life when they are resurrected, in the flesh and soul, simultaneously.

Salvation: In contrast to some Christian traditions that believe salvation is achieved by accepting Christ as Lord ("once saved, always saved"), Jehovah's Witnesses believe it is possible to fall from grace. "The Bible sets forth conditions that must be met if we are to be saved from the effects of inherited sin" (Watchtower, 09/15/89). Accepting Jesus as Lord is essential, but failure to exercise fidelity to God's requirements can result in the loss of the gift of salvation. "[B]elievers...will be saved to eternal life only if they continue to adhere to all of God's requirements...Those losing faith in Jesus also lose everlasting life." (Watchtower, 09/15/89. Thanks to James Long, Webmaster of Jehovah's Witnesses United for assistance in correcting an earlier statement regarding salvation).

Heaven: Heaven is where Jesus Christ and the other "True Christians" will live. There they will rule over the kingdom which will be on earth. Seats are limited: only 144,000 will gain access to heaven.

Hell: Hell is non-existent for the Jehovah's Witnesses. There is not a fiery-torment, claims Russell, because it runs contradictory to God's loving nature. Those who don't qualify for heaven or the kingdom that will be established on earth will simply dissappear, as if they had never existed.

The Great Crowd: These are the subjects of the kingdom ruled by Jesus and the 144,000. They will live forever on the new earth if they have chosen to obey God.

Kingdom of God: This unique government rules over the earth from heaven. Jehovah fulfilled His promise to Jesus that he would rule in 1914. When Jesus became king, Satan and his evil angels were kicked out of heaven and sent to inhabit the earth. This is how the Jehovah's Witnesses explain the wars, crime increases, and other "bad" things which are happening in our world today. All these things indicate that Jesus has established his reign and that we are in the last days. Within a certain time frame, some faithful followers, 144,000 to be exact, will join Jesus and assist him in his reign. After Jesus judges his people (some receiving everlasting life others non-existence), Jehovah will rule again.

Holidays: Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, or any other holidays (save one). They believe these celebrations grew out of ancient false religions. Also, because early Christians did not celebrate these occasions, they believe they should not either. The one day they do celebrate, however, is the Memorial of Christ's Death during Passover.

(Beckford, p. 4-6, 113; Botting, p. 5-32, 187-194; Kephart and Zellner, p.291-98; Stark and Iannaccone, p.135-6; Watchtower: Official Web Site of Jehovah's Witnesses; Religious Tolerance Page)

Issues and Controversies

Jehovah's Witnesses are the most fervently attacked new religious group today. They are heavily criticized on the Internet. Counter-cultists, have taken the lead on this attack. In addition, many former group members have published books or created web sites that share a negative perspective on the Jehovah's Witnesses. Because this group does have such a large following, it is not surprising that they would be heavily attacked. Studies show that the larger and more controversial the group, the greater the tension between them and society. Also, the more people who belong to a group, the more people there will be who may denounce the faith and become active apostates - apostates who crowd the web proclaiming the evils of the group to which they once adhered to. In this sense, it seems natural that the Jehovah's Witnesses would be so heavily criticized. At the same time, however, the intensity of attack is still alarming. Main issues which cause criticism include failed prophecies, blood transfusions, and nationalism. Failed Prophecies - Jehovah's Witnesses have calculated many dates which were meant to invite extraordinary events. Five times the start of Armageddon has been predicted by Jehovah's Witnesses; their predictions were proven wrong each of those times. They still hold fast to the date of 1914 in which Jesus Christ returned invisibly to earth, but admit erring in their calculations (1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, and 1941) for Armageddon. (Kephart and Zellner, p. 291, Religious Tolerance Page). Effects of Failed Prophecies from a Sociological Perspective.

Blood - Their stance on refusing blood transfusions comes from an interpretation of Bible verses found in Genesis, Leviticus, and Acts. For example, Leviticus 17:10 (the New World Translation) reads:

"God told Noah that every living creature should be meat unto him; but that he must not eat the blood, because the life is in the blood." Jehovah's Witnesses consider blood transfusions to be "eating blood." Because of this interpretation, many people have chosen to die rather than recieve one. Also, criticism has risen against parents who refuse transfusions for their children.

Nationalism - Jehovah's Witnesses believe that "they owed allegiance to no person, flags, or nation; they owed allegiance only to Jehovah," therefore, they do not vote, salute the flag, or participate in military duty. Men have been jailed for refusing to be drafted. Children have been expelled for not pledging allegiance to the flag.